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Surprise recovery for elusive Scottish bird

Last modified: 03 October 2014

Pair of corncrakes among horsetails, Tiree, Scotland

Image: Chris Gomersall

One of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds has enjoyed its most successful season in at least 45 years, with the national population of corncrakes reaching its highest level since counts began.

1,289 calling males were recorded in Scotland between May and July this year, as part of an annual RSPB Scotland survey.

The new figures are a welcome surprise to experts, who had previously predicted corncrake numbers would fall this year, after the species suffered an alarming decline of 23% in 2013.

Corncrakes are shy, pigeon-sized birds which breed in Scotland and migrate to Africa in winter. They mainly stay hidden among tall vegetation where they can safely raise a family, and are much more often found by hearing their distinctive rasping ‘crex-crex’ call, rather than actually being spotted.

Corncrakes were once common right across the farmed landscape in Scotland. However, they suffered huge declines throughout the 20th century and, by the early 1990s, the population had dwindled to a mere 400 singing males, highly concentrated in the Inner Hebrides, Western Isles and Orkney.  

Research conducted by RSPB Scotland identified intensifying agricultural production, especially a shift to earlier mowing of hay meadows and silage fields, as the main cause of the drastic declines.

In 1991, a cooperative conservation programme began to improve corncrake populations in Scotland. With support and advice from RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government, farmers and crofters have played the key role in the recovery of these birds, by managing cover vegetation at field edges, leaving grass fields un-cut or un-grazed until August, and using mowing operations that favour the birds’ survival and breeding success. 

The corncrake population immediately stopped declining and began to recover in response to this programme, with numbers of calling males reaching a new high this season. The biggest single island population is on the Isle of Tiree – a location holding 396 calling males in 2014.

Paul Walton, Head of Habitat and Species for RSPB Scotland, said: “This year’s figures for Scottish corncrakes are fantastic. They are testament to the dedication of crofters, farmers, the conservationists working alongside them, and to the Scottish Government and SNH officials who have helped target agricultural support to deliver this result for wildlife.

“However, last year’s fall in corncrake numbers was worrying and this bird remains highly vulnerable, so we can’t afford to be complacent. Even though there has been an increase in numbers this year, we have so far failed to expand the corncrake’s breeding range. 

'They are still found in only a few isolated areas of Scotland, mainly on the islands, so that’s where we need to focus our efforts next. We also need to bring together the methods we’ve used for corncrakes and apply them to other Scottish birds that are in trouble, like the curlew and the corn bunting, to help secure their future in Scotland.”

Jamie Boyle, site manager for RSPB Scotland’s Uist reserves, said: “The number of calling males that we‘ve recorded this year has been very encouraging. Corncrake populations really seem to have bounced back after a worrying decline in 2013, and that is a tribute to local crofters whose land management has provided these birds with the habitat they need to breed successfully.

“The geographical spread is also extremely positive, particularly the robust population in Lewis which is an area that we were concerned about. Preserving the special wildlife of the islands for locals and visitors is all about landscape-scale conservation which works hand-in-glove with the crofting community. I very much hope that we can continue to work with the townships to build on this success.”

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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